Self-esteem is one of the most powerful “felt needs” in contemporary North American culture. Young women, in particular, feel enormous pressure to both stand out and fit in, and the pressure to conform to such contradictory expectations can be debilitating. It is no wonder that many young women (and, for that matter, young men) just want someone to tell them that they are good enough.
Body image is one of the most talked about arenas in which we see these issues play out. The overemphasis on (and perversion of) sexuality in contemporary Western culture has combined with advances in photo-editing technology to create a world in which almost no “real” woman can live up to the fantasies we see on the internet and on supermarket shelves.
The effects of such unrealistic images on the psyches of young women can be dramatic. The song “More Beautiful You” describes them this way.
Little girl fourteen flipping through a magazine
Says she wants to look that way
But her hair isn’t straight, her body isn’t fake
And she’s always felt overweight
And, if the process of striving after unrealistic expectations continues, these are the inevitable results.
Little girl twenty one the things that you’ve already done
Anything to get ahead
And you say you’ve got a man but He’s got another plan
Only wants what you will do instead
So how should we as the church respond? Should we give in to the cult of self-esteem and tell people “there can never be a more beautiful you”? Obviously, it is important to introduce people to the One who made them and who loves them regardless of whether or not they look like a Brazilian supermodel. As “More Beautiful You” so eloquently points out, Jesus will never take advantage of us and will always keep us connected with our true identity.
Nevertheless, we need to be careful to do good theology as we address issues like body image. We need to begin by remembering that poor self-esteem is not the human problem. Humanity’s addiction to self-centered, self-indulgent, and self-directed living is.
Moreover, I worry that, in our haste to point out the excesses of our sex-obsessed culture, we have lost sight of the genuine goodness of beauty. The female form is a reflection of God’s own glorious creativity. Just because some people overemphasize the importance of physical beauty does not mean that we can take the Gnostic route and deny the value of the body. It is also worth remembering that the fall has negatively affected every aspect of human life—and that includes the form and function of human bodies. Indeed, one of the great hopes of the Christian faith is that all will be made right, and that includes all that has gone wrong with our bodies.
I think that “Fingerprints of God” gives us a better way to approach the problem of body image (and of self-esteem in general). In it, Steven Curtis Chapman makes the following claims:
- We are a purposeful creation of God. It is important to remind all of us that we are not an accident. Sure, genetics is the means by which we were created, and sometimes genes go wrong. But that does not mean that we are any less a creation of a loving God. And God always has a good purpose for what He does.
- We are a unique expression of God’s creative nature. Because God has a specific purpose for us, we are created with a unique constellation of gifts, attributes, and abilities.
- The evidence of God’s creative activity can be seen in us. We do not display God’s glory perfectly. Some of us are overweight. Some of us are losing our hair. Some of us have even more serious deficiencies. Still, we all bear the marks of our Creator’s activity.
- God is continuing to work on us so that we can become all that He made us to be. God is not through with us yet. He continues to work on us, and someday, we will be all that He means for us to be. In the meantime, our job is to cooperate with His work.
Like any other attribute, physical beauty should not be worshiped. It is also not a problem that needs to be solved. Rather, physical beauty is a gift from God. Some people have it; others do not. As church leaders and parents, we need to help our children—and one another—remember that the real question in life is not which gifts God has given them. It is whether we use those gifts to fulfill our purpose and to give God glory.